A few years ago at an Episcopal Easter vigil I noticed that something was missing. Someone, actually. No teenagers were present and only a few people in their twenties or thirties were in the gathered congregation of about 80—and that included me. I remember thinking, How sad, because this is the most creative, sensual service we’ve got going.

That experience re-sparked questions that I, and many others, ponder: What would it take to make the stories and rituals of our tradition meaningful to our rising generations? And how can we share the gifts of our faith with others who would never, ever, dare set foot inside a church?

A deep consideration of those questions led my partner and me to form an organization called Join the Living, whose broad mission is to connect our next generations with spiritual practices and community. In the spring of 2008 we hosted our first collaborative experiment: an all-night interactive Easter vigil in the desert of southern Arizona. We called it Uprising, a celebration of the force of life that cannot be stopped.

We also shared our plans with a ministerial colleague, Eric Elnes, who was at that time senior pastor of the multigenerational Scottsdale United Church of Christ in Scottsdale, Arizona. He and his congregation enthusiastically embraced the concept as a new way to experience Easter. We originally tried to create one Uprising together in the desert between our towns, which are about a two-hour drive apart. But as the process unfolded, that proved infeasible, so we decided to both try out the idea separately. The result? Two very different Uprisings grew out of the seed of the original vision, with each community creatively opening up the tradition within its own context.

The Structure 

In southern Arizona the rhythm for the evening was created by a weaving together of light, story, reaffirmation of baptism, and Eucharist from “The Great Vigil of Easter” found in the Episcopal 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The event began at 10 p.m. with the lighting and blessing of a new fire. After lighting the Paschal candle from the new fire, the group of about 25 mostly young adults proceeded not into a church but into a candlelit stone labyrinth. The evening then revolved around the fire and telling stories. Starting at midnight, and every hour on the hour thereafter, someone shared a salvation story from the Hebrew scripture. Around 5 a.m. the group reaffirmed their baptism or their commitment to life, received personal blessings, and washed their faces and arms from a wheelbarrow full of water. At 6 a.m. members of a traditional Episcopal church joined the group fora sunrise Eucharist.

The vision was to keep the structure of the liturgy and its symbolism and then explore ways to creatively engage it. Participants were invited to bring whatever they wished to contribute. Among the contributions were art projects, electronic chants, animal bones for a meditation on death, animal masks for acting out the story of Noah and the ark, and a laptop computer in which the group experimentally edited and commented on the Nicene Creed. One participant, 27-year-old Fred Bevins, brought his DJ equipment and a projector, sharing some of his original electronic music and silently projecting old movies about Jesus onto a nearby two-story wall throughout the night.

In their version of the Uprising, Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ experienced all of Holy Week within a 12-hour period. They linked each major movement to one of the four elements and a significant emotion. Maundy Thursday was linked to earth and apathy, Good Friday to fire and anger, Holy Saturday to air and angst, and Easter Sunday to water and awe. They began at 5 p.m. on Saturday and devoted approximately three hours to creatively experiencing each day/element/emotion. The congregation had not previously had a tradition of holding an Easter vigil, but last year they decided to cancel their Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services and have only the Uprising. In past years about a dozen people came to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. This year more than 100 people came to the potluck “Cosmic Banquet” that began the Scottsdale Uprising.

“I am totally sold on experiencing the movement from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday in sequence like this,” said Elnes. “It’s powerful, and it gives license to a great variety of ways the event can be experienced.”

The Setting 

The southern Arizona Uprising occurred entirely outdoors in a desert setting. To give participants some conveniences—like restrooms and electricity—it was held on the grounds of an Episcopal church that sits on several acres of desert scrub in a fairly remote part of Oro Valley. A nearly full moon illuminated the surrounding mountains. The fire pit burned near the outdoor columbarium, and the candlelit labyrinth created a field of light nearby.

The Scottsdale congregation used both indoor and outdoor space on their campus during the evening. The church is in the middle of a neighborhood, but outside they quietly walked a labyrinth, kindled a bonfire, and created some interactive, artistic Stations of the Cross. Experiences such as yoga, a morning laughter meditation, and sleeping happened inside.

They began in the fellowship hall with a potluck to experience Maundy Thursday. To signal the movement into Good Friday, they moved outside to light a bonfire.

Having Uprising at their church gave members of Scottsdale Congregational the chance to feel comfortable in a familiar space while trying many new things. As Gloria Pulido, a Presbyterian minister who is an active member of the Scottsdale congregation, commented, “I was glad we did it at the Scottsdale church and not outside in the middle
of the desert because it made it possible for more people to participate and come and go as they pleased.”

In contrast, having the event in the desert and outside a church building proved to be an authentic and healing venue for some of the participants in southern Arizona. Join the Living cofounder and Episcopal priest Kate Bradsen, 29, said, “When you sit around a campfire with people at night under stars and talk about life and death and watch the moon slowly cross the sky, it feels real in a way that church typically doesn’t.”

Incorporating the desert as part of the experience was also important to connect the liturgy to the local context and to people’s lives. Bevins said he was drawn to participate because Uprising had the familiar feel of the desert raves (all-night, outdoor electronic music and dance parties) of his youth. Even though he’s become fond of traditional Episcopal liturgy, and decided to get baptized in the Episcopal Church when he was 25, the desert is also a spiritual place to him.

For Cary Gibson, 34, a leader in the Ikon collective of Belfast, Northern Ireland, which offers anarchic experiments in transformative art, the setting was healing. “The desert itself felt sacred—like it was a living being,” Gibson said. She grew up in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, flirted with evangelicalism in her late teens, and later dabbled in an Anglican congregation. It’s been four years since she was part of a traditional congregation. “I left church because it made me angry so much of the time,” she said. “The night felt reconciling. It felt healing in a very undramatic, gentle kind of way.”

The Planning 

Individuals from four communities worked together to plan the Uprising in southern Arizona: members of Aldea, a progressive Christian community with a Baptist heritage and an emerging church edge; the Episcopal priest of Church of the Apostles in Oro Valley, which shared their church campus; Gibson from Ikon in Northern Ireland; and Kate Bradsen and I from Join the Living.

By working across denominational lines,
we all had the opportunity to expand our imaginations and learn from one another’s context. One of my seminary professors, Christopher Duraisingh, used to call this “intercontextual dialogue,” something that is vital if Christians are to fully understand the gospel and keep the traditions of our faith alive. As we planned we kept in mind something he taught, that tradition is better understood as “traditioning.”1 In other words, tradition is a dynamic process, like a flowing river that we step into. We keep it alive and moving by making sense of it in our own context and then sharing our experience with other Christians.

The congregation in Scottsdale regularly plans creative worship together. Throughout the year, five to ten people gather each week to collectively create a unique Sunday worship experience that taps into the five senses. Their one goal? For people to experience God. They used this same process to plan their Uprising.

Dan Loven, who regularly participates in the weekly meetings for Sunday services, served as project manager for the Uprising. Loven said it drew in new people. One in particular, Pat Fisher, 70, attends the church’s earlier, more traditional service on Sundays. She came to just one planning meeting and volunteered to play cello at the Uprising and to buy 100 candles for the labyrinth. “This was truly a sacred community event, not dependent on any one person,” reflected Tara Bailey, another member of the Scottsdale congregation.

The Experience 

So, just how does a guy who is agnostic end up deciding to stick around and tend the fire at the celebration of the highest holy day of the Christian faith? How did a shy woman find the guts to spontaneously tell a story about Jesus as if she were a woman from the gospels? What made people stand in line to sit alone in a room and cry as part of the Stations of the Cross?

Perhaps it was simply an invitation and an opportunity. Maybe it was the liminal space created by gathering at a very late hour in a sacred space. Maybe it was so out of the ordinary that people were curious and wanted to see for themselves. Possibly the wine helped.

Fisher said it’s hard to know why her spiritual community is willing to take so many risks. “People work together, love each other, love God. It’s a religious phenomenon, without being too evangelical about it,” she said.

“We get excited about stepping into the unknown together and experiencing something that none of us can grasp ahead of time,” added Elnes, who led Scottsdale Congregational for 12 years before responding to a call to lead Countryside Community Church in Omaha shortly after Easter.

Loven said each person took away something different. Some were moved by shouting, “He is risen!” on Easter morning and watching a tub of water turn the bonfire into a plume of smoke. Some were challenged by running around blindfolded in the sanctuary to experience the chaos and angst of Holy Saturday. Some enjoyed the catharsis of throwing aluminum nails into the fire during the time of remembering the crucifixion—and then their surprise when the melded metal pieces were dug out at the sunrise service to reveal beautiful pieces of transformation.

For Loven, a highlight was the wake for Jesus around the fire. He told how people volunteered to embody a biblical character and share how Jesus had personally impacted that person’s life. Character prep sheets were handed out, with Bible passages describing the characters’ encounters with Jesus. The volunteers spent about 20 minutes preparing, then came back to share their stories.

Loven portrayed the paralytic man whose friends lowered him through a roof to be healed by Jesus. “I said that I had had an accident when we were waterskiing in the river Jordan. Then my friends heard about this healer guy,” he recounted. “I tried to make it humorous and personal.”

This was also 16-year-old Jacob Stambaugh’s favorite part of the night. He went to the fire to hear the stories and stayed until sunrise. “If you can say being happy is being with God, I did feel that I was with God that night,” Stambaugh said. “I enjoyed the peacefulness of the time around the fire, being with friends, and being able to
just think.”

In southern Arizona, fire and stories—both biblical and personal—also proved to be a powerful piece of the liturgy. The fire created a contemplative space to discuss the biblical stories and for people to talk about their own lives with one another. “When we share who we are,” Gibson said, “something sacred happens in the space between and through the telling and the listening. I love the idea of people’s authentic experiences, their stories being told as being an act of liturgy.”

“It gave me hope that the church could be different,” said Bradsen. “That it could be a real, authentic experience. This night resonated with people’s lives. It came from a deeper part of them.”

Instead of offering traditional prayers after hearing or experiencing the biblical stories, someone held up a sign that said, “Life is Stronger than Death” on one side and “Fear Not” on the other. Like a protest sign—against hopelessness.

Deep in the night, lack of sleep led to a lot of laughing. At times it seemed as though the group was also laughing at the darkness, maybe even a little bit at death itself. “I felt safe that night,” Gibson reflected later. “It was a rare occasion in which I let go of fear.”

At first light, also the coldest part of the evening, the group huddled near the fire and started to spontaneously sing “alleluia” softly to a tune made up in the moment. It was a subtle yet profound experience of Easter. Others later reflected that it also stood in stark contrast to the orchestras and fanfare some of us have experienced on past Easter mornings. Holly Shinn, 33, who grew up in the Lutheran tradition and is now part of an Episcopal church, said she was struck by the slow transition of darkness to light, and what that might mean about how God works. “It is not like a light switch,” she said. “You got a little bit of light, and a little bit more light, but no actual sun for a long time. It was more like slipping into resurrection.”

The Learnings 

In southern Arizona, the Uprising proved to be an example of mixing modern elements with ancient liturgy. It also demonstrated how established churches and fresh expressions of church can benefit from being in relationship with one another. Simmons said her congregation was delighted to have people under the age of 40 at their church. The experience also gave her a deeper realization that the Easter vigil is something many young adults naturally appreciate. “Even if they didn’t do an all-night vigil, churches can involve young adults in the planning,” she said.

In reflecting on the event, Bradsen wondered what might happen if more churches shifted their mindset about Holy Week from inward reflection to outward proclamation. “What if churches made Holy Week something that people wanted to invite their friends to?” she wondered. “There are people all over this country who need to know that their human experiences of hope and betrayal and death are sacred ones. If all we do is put on pretty shows for ourselves, then we are failing those people. Knowing that the sun is going to come up even on the darkest night is way more important than putting your kid in an Easter dress. That’s what the church can show people.”

The goal of the Scottsdale Uprising was to create ways for people to experience the story and emotions of Holy Week. It gave people pause to realize that Easter is more than just going to a service and listening to the minister talk, Fisher said.

It is risky to try new things, of course. Not everybody liked everything. Not everything worked well. For instance, in southern
Arizona the art tent set up for painting a communal mandala was a little too dark and too far away from the fire to draw much interest. In Scottsdale, so much was going on that the logistics team was sometimes too distracted to be fully present to the experience themselves.

For many, the fruits of trying new things were renewed faith, spiritual insights, joy, and a sense of feeling connected to the community and to God. For Scottsdale Congregational’s Bailey, it was a chance to resurrect something meaningful. She and her husband brought their 85-foot hot air balloon to the Uprising. “We have not used it in the 12 years we’ve been in Arizona,” she said. “The awe and joy on people’s faces, particularly children’s, as the hot air balloon was inflated and glowed, was one of the most meaningful moments for me. It was so refreshing to share the joy once again.”

The Uprisings were a little risky and challenging. But why not? “Having something that jars you out of the way things have always been done isn’t a completely bad thing,” Simmons said. “If not at Easter, then when?”

1. For more on this, see “Tradition and Transformation in Mission,” a keynote address given by Christopher Duraisingh at the start of the Mission Organizations Conference, Cyprus, February 2003 (http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/mission/resources/papers/paper6.cfm). 

Questions for Reflection 

  1. How is God already speaking through particular cultures or local contexts present in your community? How might what you hear be incorporated into your worship and outreach?
  2. Who is missing at your services? How could they not just be invited but invited to share their gifts and leadership?
  3. How could members of your congregation be invited to share or reflect on their personal stories of betrayal, death, hope, and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter?